Why I am glad that Malala did not win the Nobel Prize

I’m glad that Malala Yousafzai did not win the Nobel Peace Prize.

This is not because I do not applaud her bravery and support her fantastic campaigning work. Rather, I worry about the effect of thrusting the prize onto someone so young.

Previous Nobel Laureates have reported that winning the prize is incredibly disruptive to their career. Peter Higgs, who was awarded the Chemistry prize last week, tried to escape media inquiries. But they tracked him down eventually,

Our media is full of stories of child prodigies pressurised into excellence and unhappiness. Child actors regularly seem to end up in rehab units, and the career trajectory of child pop-stars like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus makes everyone uneasy.  We angst over the plight of Royal babies, born into incredible wealth but no privacy. Continue reading “Why I am glad that Malala did not win the Nobel Prize”

Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power

I really shouldn’t let the weekend start without jotting a few notes about the ongoing unrest in the Middle East, provoked by the YouTube video “The Innocence of Muslims” and fuelled by the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The protests have sparked another round of analysis of the the Muslim faith, with the predictable indictment of Islam as uniquely intolerant. The Onion published a very funny NSFW cartoon, blasphemous to all religions except Islam, with the headline ‘No-one Murdered Because of This Image’. Funny, yes, but not actually accurate as satire. The fundamentalist Hindus of India are not above threats and riots when their sacred images are appropriated. The internationally acclaimed artist MF Hussain spent his twilight years in exile because of threats made by his own countrymen, such was their dislike of his Mother India paintings. And Richard Gere’s effigy was burned by an angry mob after he kissed Shilpa Shetty.

The fact that Hindus riot too is instructive. When they do, it is at the encouragement of nationalists groups like Shiv Sena, who seek political power through demonisation and division. When Muslims riot, it is similarly due to local leaders seeking to win political support. Even the Salman Rushdie fatwā (also in the news this week due to the publication of Rushdie’s autobiography, Joseph Anton) was raised by Ayatollah Khomeini as part of a power-play. The old Ayatollah had been losing political support in the months leading up to Valentine’s Day 1989, when the infamous decree was issued. Continue reading “Blasphemy and Cynical Plays for Power”

Twitter Censored in Pakistan

Over at the English PEN site, I have rehearsed the issue of social media censorship. Here’s an excerpt:

When such controversies flare, it is also important to remember that the social networks are corporations, intent on making money. This was made very clear to us all this week, when Facebook was listed on the NASDAQ. To justify its $100 billion valuation, the site needs new users, and it will get them from populous countries with technical infrastructure… like China, India and Pakistan. In order to secure access to these users, the company will have to co-operate (some might even say ‘collaborate’) with the governments of those countries. We should expect to see more censorship of the sort Pakistani users saw over the weekend, and also more sophisticated forms of control. People notice a nationwide social media blackout, but they are less likely to perceive a ‘throttling’ of internet access during periods of unrest or dissent. We are also likely to see an automated sieving of messages, where a site will appear to function normally, but certain keywords or phrases (for example, ‘Jasmine Revolution’, ‘Tiananmen Massacre’ or ‘Mohammed Cartoons’) will be filtered. Can we trust the large corporations to resist governments’ demands to filter? What if the sovereign wealth funds in authoritarian regimes buy up Facebook and Twitter shares?

You can read the whole thing on the PEN site. I have blogged previously about the problem of “Corporate Silos” and the need to diversify our social media use, though I am as useless as anyone at actually following through on this.

On The Censorship of Cricket

The thing that caught my ear this morning was the cricket scores. England are on tour, playing Pakistan… in Abu Dhabi. The English cricketers cannot travel to play in actual Pakistan due to security threats.

This echoes the problems experienced by delegates to the Jaipur Literary Festival last weekend. Threats of violence (real and imagined) kept Salman Rushdie away from the podium, and even derailed a planned video-link appearance.

In both cases, the threats of a few reactionaries are spoiling the chances of ordinary people to enjoy their preferred leisure activities. In both these cases they are Islamists, although Hindu Nationalists are guilty of similar ad hoc censorship of artists such as the late M.F. Hussain.

But anyway, my half-formed thought is this: I wonder to what degree the practice of sport might be considered ‘expression’ in the same way as we think of writing as expression? The elegance of Sport is often likened to dance, which undeniably a form of artistic expression. And dancers are routinely referred to as ‘athletes’ with similar fitness regimes. The need for an audience is common to both groups too. If an audience is barred from a performance, then that is an infringement of the artist’s freedom of expression. Is not the barring the Pakistani cricket fans from the games (by virtue of the games being played in another country) a similar infringement?

The problem is not experienced by the players. Since Pakistan has a proud cricketing heritage, with millions of enthusiasts. Denying these fans the ritual of test matches feels like a denial of their cultural expression too. The Islamic fundamentalists are demanding that their conception of Pakistan trumps any other ideas of what is important.

This is probably an old conversation for Pakistani cricket fans. Yet it is seldom discussed here in the UK. The fact that the Test Match venue has been moved to Dubai is not remarked upon by the sports reporters. I think it is a useful issue to highlight, because if these similarities between art and sport hold up, then that would be a very useful point for free expression campaigners to insert into the campaigning rhetoric. One assumes there are more sport-lovers than literature-lovers.

The Deposed Prime Minister

So it seems Pakistan’s elections will be postponed after all. On the surface, this is another depressing development following the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. However, after watching the TV footage of burnt out vehicles littering the streets, I wonder if a short period to restore calm could make for ‘better’ elections in the long run. Clearly Pervez Musharraf will remain under pressure to deliver order, and elections, very soon.

One bug-bear of mine is the way Nawaz Sharif is referred to by the media. He is typically referred to as “opposition leader” or “former Prime Minister”. He is both those things, but he is also the deposed Prime Minister of Pakistan, the last person to win a democratic election. An incumbent of sorts!

The circumstances of President Musharraf’s rise to power, while never forgotten, have been given the sheen of legitimacy after his assistance with the War On Terror. However, the primary issue in Pakistani politics is now the restoration of democracy. I am no fan of Sharif’s political record and I hope he loses the elections when they are held. But it is well worth emphasising just who is the deposer, and who is the deposee in this dynamic.

Afterthought

Interestingly, Nawaz Sharif’s statement today called for a restoration of the constitution to its 1973 version. This despite his attempts, some successful, to amend that constitution!

Eloquent Kashmiris

As the death toll rises, there seems to be very little I can say on the latest natural disaster to wreak havoc on unsuspecting peoples.

One thing that struck me: I was watching a report on the relief effort, and a random Kashmiri farmer was being interviewed. His son had an arm in a sling, and they were describing their predicament. They were talking in English… It never ceases to amaze me the capacity that other nationalities have for bilingualism, when in the UK its a struggle to get students to take a GCSE or a Standard/Higher in another language.

Clearly these people have a different conception of language and nationality to us islanders. Kashmir is a divided region of course, with several ethnicities, affiliations and identities. The requirement to speak more than one dialect is a fact of life.

Next time there is a river bursts its banks and swamps an English flood plain, I wonder how many people will be able to describe their experiences to the foreign news agencies?